Your Brain Doesn’t Care About Your Happiness

One of my favorite quotes from neuroscientist Rick Hanson goes something like this: “Your brain was not evolved to make you happy. Your brain was evolved to keep you alive.” It’s so important to keep this in mind! Our brain evolved over millennia to keep us alert to dangers, and is highly sensitive to negative data and potential threats.

Out in the wild, of course, the finely-tuned limbic system of our brain that keeps us on high alert was a really good thing, because it kept us aware and alive. But today we deal with different issues. Our problems are not natural disasters or predators. Our problems are stress, depression, and illnesses (which are often related to stress and depression). This finely-tuned mechanism has turned against us.

Left to itself, our minds flit around from stimuli to memories to anticipated (or feared) future possibilities. And neuroscientists (like Rick Hansen) are telling us that the mind tends to notice and dwell on the negative: threats, dangers, and problems. Let me emphasize that: the mind WILL go negative. That’s what it does, because its focus is on helping protect you from potential dangers and threats.

The only way to have a good life is to find some way of overriding these natural tendencies, so that we are not at the mercy of our negative, brooding, anxious, monkey-mind.

Three Bible passages

Three Bible passages come to mind, all written by the apostle Paul. The first is 2 Corinthians 10:5, where Paul says that we should “take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ.” Instead of letting our thoughts control us, we control them. We put them in their place.

The second is Romans 12:2, where Paul talks about not letting the world squeeze us into its mold, but rather that we be “transformed through the renewing of our minds.” Our lives are transformed as we transform our thinking. It comes through “renewing our minds.” And our minds are renewed as we take in new thoughts and ideas, and meditate on them, rather than meditating on our fears and worries.

The third is from Philippians 4:8, where Paul says: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Yet another place where we’re being told to be deliberate about what we dwell on. Instead of thinking about things that are untrue, ugly, negative, impure … think of good things, true things, positive things, excellent things.

Okay … but how?

How are you going to do that? You’re going to have to train. You’re going to have to practice. You’re going to have to pay attention to what you pay attention to.

I find that the practice of meditation, or contemplative prayer, is very helpful for this. I spend time in quiet, and notice where my mind goes. When it flits around to things that I’m sad, angry, or anxious about, it turn those over to God in prayer. When it flits around to things I’m happy or excited about, I turn those over to God in a prayer of gratitude. I often keep going back again and again to the Jesus prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

Then throughout the day, periodically notice where your mind is. Keep bringing it back to focusing on whatever you’re doing, and on “excellent and praiseworthy” things. Whatever you’re brooding or anxious about, turn it into a prayer and then move on.

Some years ago, Darshan Singh wrote these words — and if anything they’re more important than ever to keep in mind:

“Our tensions are created because we are not able to control our mind, and it runs amuck. Sometimes we think of one problem, sometimes of another problem, and most of the time we are continually brooding. At times we do think of those factors which are a real cause of tension, but we are mostly afflicted with self-created tensions. We often fear our own shadows in life, with the result that we find ourselves in a very sorry plight, and go about with a drooping face and are constantly worried and agitated. But if we are able to control our mind, if we are able to fix our attention at the center of the soul, then we will not brood; we will be delivered from self-created anxieties.

“It is our attention which is the root of worry and also of bliss. In our everyday life we find that when we are sitting lost in thought, or are concentrating on solving a problem or composing a poem, even if someone passes by us or calls out to us, we may be quite unaware of it. … When we control our attention and focus it at the center of the soul, then we feel at peace. Our body is relaxed, our mind is relaxed, and our spirit is relaxed. This is what is meant by sitting in meditation, and it relieves us of our anxieties, of our pains, of our afflictions, and it will will afford us complete relaxation and bliss.”

Recovery requires the willingness to think differently … which is harder than you think

The process of recovery involves learning to think differently, which is much harder than most people realize. It’s not a matter of simply adding a few select pieces of new information onto what you already know.

That’s easy learning. Hard learning is when you’re forced to learn things that contradict what you already “know.”

It’s true that recovery involves taking in some new information that is easily assimilated, and fits into what you already believe to be true. If that were the bulk of it, recovery would be easy, and most everyone would be successful at it. But much of the learning in recovery forces us to evaluate what we’ve believed or assumed to be true … and it challenges us to re-think those ideas. It frequently challenges us to unlearn things, discarding the lies, distortions, and half-truths we’ve accepted — about ourselves, God, our past, other people, how life works, what makes us happy, etc.

We’re often told that recovery requires us to “trust the process.” This is just is another way of saying that we need to be willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were stupid, are in fact really wise and important. And we must become willing to accept that some of the things we’ve thought (in the past) were wise and important, are, in fact actually stupid, and dangerous for our well-being.

How do we deal with new and contradictory information?

Does it make you uncomfortable to deal with information that contradicts what you previously thought was true? There are two kinds of people: (a) people who plug their ears to contradictory information, and refuse to change (b) people who are willing to accept the new information — after verifying its accuracy of course — and rethink their position. This is wisdom.

A principle I’ve gleaned from Chinese philosophers like Lao Tzu and Chuang Zhu is that it’s healthy for living things to remain flexible and soft … like a green branch that is able to flex in the blowing wind. When things become old and hard, they become brittle … like a hardened tree branch that is liable to crack and break. That which is alive is soft and flexible, and that which is dead is rigid and brittle. Of course it’s not a perfect analogy, and it’s not the Gospel truth for all occasions, but there’s an important truth there.

There is a fine line between having firm convictions (good), and being rigid and closed to truth (bad). For people in recovery, this mental flexibility is essential. It’s really important to come to grips with the things you need to UN-learn about yourself, your beliefs, your ways of relating. For people in leadership, this mental flexibility is also essential. You have to be willing to learn, to see things in new ways, to challenge your assumptions. Otherwise, you will lose touch with the people around you, and the environment your organization exists in.

John Maynard Keynes once was challenged for altering his position on some economic issue. “When my information changes,” he said, “I change my mind. What do you do?”

Help for starting–or supporting–a program for recovery from sexual struggles

In 2007, I developed a program to help people who were dealing with sexual struggles in their lives. Some felt comfortable calling these struggles an addiction, while others weren’t so sure about that label. It started out as followup, or “aftercare,” program for people who attended workshops I helped facilitate with Dr. Mark Laaser.

I think this program could help you, if you are wanting to start something — a group or ministry — to help others, or get more support for your own recovery.

When I created the Recovery Journey, I wanted to offer something different: I wanted to offer something that would work with — and help supplement — work people might already be doing with a therapist, or involvement with a 12-Step recovery group. I didn’t want to create something to compete against the many good programs already out there, or compete with therapists who do face-to-face work. I wanted to create something that would work with those other modalities.

And I wanted to offer something that helped facilitate a practice that I’ve come to believe is essential for long term sobriety:

Doing a little something every day
to support your recovery

As my sexualsanity.com website grew, I started to get people in the program who hadn’t gone to a workshop, and I found it worked just as well — if not better — for them.

Over the years I continued to tweak the program, and for some time now it’s been known as “The Recovery Journey,” and hundreds of participants have gone through it. I wish I had exact numbers. At this point, I think somewhere close to 400 people have gone through the program: about 300 sexual strugglers, and 100 partners of strugglers, who’ve gone through the companion program.

To find out more about the Recovery Journey, 

or sign up for it,

go to the website:

http://recoveryjourney.com

Here’s a little about the program, and a little about what I’ve learned:

1. Set a specific length of time. I decided to focus on a specific span of time, to make it something that people could dedicate themselves to going through as a transition time … even though we all know that recovery is a lifelong journey. With a nod to the recovery tradition of focusing intensively for 90 Days, I eventually set up the program to run for 90 Days.

I recommend this as a way of starting something with other people. Have a group meet for 3 months. Have everybody make a commitment to faithful attendance for that set amount of time. Then, if it goes well, you can decide towards the end of that time if you want to keep going.

2. Include some teaching to solidify a deeper understanding of addiction and recovery. I set up the program to include a short teaching segment, along with an action step to take each day (I’ll say more about the action step below). In my work with people in recovery, I came to see how essential it is to maintain focus on one’s recovery commitment. I came up with the principle that we need to do “a little something EVERY DAY” to remind us of our commitment, and help us move in the right direction. Continue reading Help for starting–or supporting–a program for recovery from sexual struggles

Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning

One of my favorite lines from Lao Tzu reads as follows (as translated by William Martin):

If we hold on to thoughts, judgments, and opinions,
our minds will be cluttered and useless.
If we hold on to possessions,
our minds will contract in fear of loss.
If we hold on to the opinions of others,
our minds will be confused and exhausted.
The only path to a satisfying life
lies in letting go.
– Lao Tzu

Not long ago, my wife and I moved from a five bedroom suburban home to a two bedroom apartment in the city of Chicago. We let go of a lot of possessions on the journey from 3000 square feet to 1200! But don’t feel sorry for us … we wanted to do this. Now empty-nesters, we felt it was time to simplify our lives.

Letting go of stuff has its challenges. It wasn’t painful to let our possessions go, but it was a lot of work. It took time and effort, but it was worth it. It was helpful and freeing.

The importance and value of “letting go” applies to more than just possessions. Lao-Tzu also suggests that it’s important to let go of “thoughts, judgments, and opinions.” I agree … but with a caveat. I think the caveat is implied in Lao-Tzu’s verse, but not stated directly: it’s important to let go of thoughts, judgments, and opinions that are no longer accurate or helpful.

Just as we don’t jettison possessions that we still use, enjoy, and need; so we don’t jettison ideas that we still see as true and important. That’s not what we’re after. What we need is to be thoughtful, reflective, and humble enough to recognize that as time goes and as we grow, our understanding deepens. And we find that some of the things we used to think were true and important are really not.

Let me put it another way: the process of growth — intellectual, emotional, and spiritual — involves not only adding new insights and ideas, but letting go of old ones. It’s not only about “filling our cup” with new, clean water … it’s also about emptying our cup of the lukewarm, brackish water that is distasteful and unhealthy. Continue reading Recovery requires UN-learning, not just learning

After Rehab: 5 Ways to Bolster Your Recovery

I’ve worked with lots of people in recovery who’ve gone through an intensive workshop, and others who’ve been in treatment / rehab. These experiences are incredibly powerful … but relapse is still all-too-common. Workshops and treatment centers are only life-changing if the person who goes through them implements a solid program of recovery after they leave.

Adam Cook writes about recovery, mostly from substance abuse. He curates addictionhub.org, a go-to site for addiction resources. He writes here about how to set yourself up for success after being in treatment. Although he’s writing mostly for drug and alcohol addiction, and for those who’ve been in weeks-long treatment, I still think it’s worth thinking about for readers of this site. Much of this is applicable for people dealing with sex addiction, and also for those who’ve gone through shorter-term intensive workshop experiences.

But keep one thing in mind …

In recovery from addiction, you’ll often hear contradictory advice. Sometimes you’ll hear people say that you shouldn’t make major life changes in the first year of recovery. I think this is solid advice … but sometimes even this conventional wisdom needs to be challenged. Some of Adam’s suggestions below really are major life-changes. They make sense in the lives of people who’ve been deep in addiction, and have gone through an intensive intervention (such as rehab). For these people, major life changes are probably needed if they’re going to make their recovery stick. (Even so, notice that Adam concludes with the reminder to start slowly, even with major changes like some of what he’s suggesting.)

Read what Adam has to say, and reflect for yourself whether or not your life needs more drastic changes in order for recovery to stick.

Enter Adam …

Getting off drugs — or addictive behavior — is the easy part; it’s staying sober and finding the courage to start your new life that’s a challenge. While the first days and weeks are focused on the initial issues, such as getting through withdrawal symptoms, you’ll eventually have to use your newfound sobriety to build a life for yourself and your family, even though it feels like the world is against you. Here are a few ways to tilt the odds in favor of success.

1. Give yourself a blank canvas

While you can’t hide from your addiction, you can give yourself the opportunity to distance yourself from the past. Moving to a new location is like hitting a reset button, allowing you to start over on a new playing field, where no one has any preconceived notions about you. Don’t just settle for anywhere; US News & World Report lists lifestyle as one of the top five considerations when looking for a new neighborhood. If you rush into a move without making sure the area will enhance your sobriety, meaning it has the amenities to keep you on track, then you may be setting yourself up for failure. Continue reading After Rehab: 5 Ways to Bolster Your Recovery

Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction, part 2

The relationship between sexual abuse and addiction

The previous article in this series introduced the topic, clarified the terms, and focused on the relationship between sexual harassment and sexual addiction. This edition will focus on the relationship between sexual abuse and addiction.

First off, I want to acknowledge that this is a broad topic, and entire books are written about these themes by people who are experts in this subject. (One classic is The Betrayal Bond, by Patrick Carnes.) I’m writing here to share some of my observations, as a spiritual teacher, and as one who worked in the sex addiction field for a number of years, working with many hundreds of sex addicts.

Here’s my observation:

Many sex addicts have been victims of sexual abuse
(but of course, not all of them)
and only a small group of sex addicts become abusers.
Those who do become abusers have issues beyond addiction.

To be sure we’re clear about our terms, sexual abuse, as defined by the The American Psychological Associate (APA) is “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.” It is often used to refer to sexual activity with minors … those unable to give consent.

Many Sex Addicts Have Been Victims of Sexual Abuse

When kids are exposed to early sexual activity, they respond in two ways: They either shut down sexually, and withdraw from any kind of future sexual activity, or they shift the other way, seeking out sexual activity on a large, unhealthy scale. This creates the energy for sexual addiction, also sometimes referred to as “hypersexuality.”

Continue reading Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction, part 2

Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction: the differences, the overlap, and the treatment (part 1)


Reports of celebrities, politicians, and newscasters being ousted because of sexual abuse and harassment charges continue to dominate the news. Good!

Conversations about the problem of unwanted sexual advances — and the abuse of power to exploit people sexually — are uncomfortable but really important. When the #metoo social media posts went viral it was a stark reminder of how widespread this problem is.

For a number of years I worked in the recovery field — specializing in sexual addiction — and I’ve had the occasion to deal with these issues a LOT. Hearing the stories in the news lately has brought up a lot of thoughts. Let me share some of them …

First off, let’s get clear about the terms

SEXUAL HARASSMENT — Webster’s dictionary defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate, such as an employee or student.” Guidelines of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) have formed the basis for most state laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. The guidelines state:

Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute sexual harassment when:

  • submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment,

  • submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment decisions affecting such individuals, or

  • such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

SEXUAL ABUSE — Sexual abuse goes further than harassment in that it involves sexual contact (not just words) with someone unable to give consent (eg. a child, or someone with dementia) and thus involves some form of “forcible compulsion.” When force is immediate, of short duration, or infrequent, it is called sexual assault. The American Psychological Associate (APA) defines sex abuse as “unwanted sexual activity, with perpetrators using force, making threats or taking advantage of victims not able to give consent.”

RAPE — According to Wikipedia, “Rape is a type of sexual assault usually involving sexual intercourse or other forms of sexual penetration carried out against a person without that person’s consent. The act may be carried out by physical force, coercion, abuse of authority, or against a person who is incapable of giving valid consent. The term rape is sometimes used interchangeably with the term sexual assault.”

Why these distinctions are important

Distinctions matter because there is overlap between these problems, and these overlaps can be confusing. Sexual harassment is different than sexual abuse and sexual assault. Rape and sexual assault are sometimes used interchangeably, although the term “sexual assault” might best be used to describe unwanted sexual contact that does not involve penetration, reserving the term “rape” for unwanted sexual contact that does involve penetration.

Continue reading Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Addiction: the differences, the overlap, and the treatment (part 1)

The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

In recovery, “hitting bottom” is a core concept. To be willing to do the work required to overcome addiction, a person has to reach a point where they see that their life is not working. This happens when we experience suffering as a result of our addiction.

Hitting bottom happens differently to different people. What might cause someone to hit bottom might not be enough for someone else. In the early days of AA, the only people trusted to really “be in recovery” were those who’d lost everything to alcoholism. It was assumed that, unless someone had lost it all, they hadn’t hit bottom, and wouldn’t be ready to fully participate in the program.

It didn’t take long, however, for them to find that newcomers to the program had “hit bottom” in other ways. They’d experienced enough pain from family relationships, even if they hadn’t lost their family; or they’d experienced enough negative consequences in their work, even if they hadn’t been fired from their job.

“Hitting bottom” happens whenever you decide it happens. Actually there is no “bottom.” You can always lose more. I’ve seen people “hit bottom” when they were confronted by a teary-eyed loved one. I’ve seen others Continue reading The spiritual word for “hitting bottom” — we hear it less but need it more than ever

finding intimacy and freedom from pornography and sex addiction